The Social Fabric

by Nancy Wehrbein ('75), illustrations by Melanie Falk, Natalie Swanda, and Krista Popp ('11)

Last January, the same week Nebraska Wesleyan students started back to classes, American society paused to recall a different time.

Our nation marked the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s Inaugural address, when JFK admonished young people at NWU and elsewhere—along with every other American—to consider what they could do for their country. Leading up to that famous charge, Kennedy had observed: “Man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life,” providing a succinct snapshot of 1961’s optimism and the pervasive Cold War surrounding it.

The same week last January, televisions in the NWU residence halls brought the news that Sargent Shriver had died—JFK’s brother-in-law and the Johnson Administration’s “git-r-done” man who launched the programs that would end poverty and strengthen the social fabric of a nation. Shriver had organized Head Start, Community Action, Foster Grandparents, Neighborhood Health Services, Indian and Migrant Opportunities, Legal Services, and an array of other programs. They were all designed to shape a Great Society.

Those gray skies of January 2011 caused many Americans to look back and take stock. Did we win the War on Poverty? What happened? How strong is our social fabric today?

Some would say it remains frayed.

Click to see the full illustration.

Opened Eyes

Not even the parents of today’s NWU students are sure to remember the War on Poverty. But their children’s predecessors, the NWU students of the 1960s, were there on the front lines. Their United Methodist chaplain was with them.

“He opened my eyes to a lot of things,” said Marilyn Morris Horn (’65) of Durham, Conn., explaining the impact of Rev. Dayton Olson (’54), NWU’s chaplain who sponsored the student chapter of the YMCA. She described it as the main campus activist group during the 1960s. Olson had originally come to NWU as a student from Big Springs, Neb. He earned a master’s degree in theology from Iliff School of Theology and returned as NWU chaplain from 1960 to 1966. Olson was a major influence on fellow rural students who dared to choose experiences outside their comfort zones.

Through programs of the national YMCA that linked to Olson’s student chapter at NWU, Marilyn Horn spent three consecutive summers serving the poor in situations much different from her own. After her sophomore year she volunteered at a camp in Albuquerque, N.M., serving Native American youth. The next summer she was placed at a day care center in East Harlem, in the grit of New York City. The young woman from quiet little Murray, Neb., learned that not every child lived in a little white house.

“In East Harlem, we asked the kids to draw pictures of their house. I was expecting them to bring us cute drawings of front doors and swing sets in the yard. They brought us pictures of high-rise apartments with a couple of little trees in the front. They were ‘the projects.’ I was so stunned,” Horn recounted.

Learning about poverty amid a different way of life and in a different language came after her senior year. She was in the slums of Lima, Peru. The YMCA had planned for its volunteers to work in the mountains but guerilla warfare was under way. By summer 1966, Horn was returning to those mountains as a member of the new Peace Corps, the international program for which Sargent Shriver is most remembered.

There is still work to be done, obviously. Four decades after America declared war on poverty, it is difficult to claim that the social fabric has been mended. Poverty remains a topic for the NWU community in class and out of class, across departments and into Lincoln and the world. What remains also is NWU’s intent to prepare students to do something about it, growing into “useful and serving members of the human community”—a role called for in the Nebraska Wesleyan University mission statement.

“Responding to the needs of people tangibly, that is the point,” said Rev. Mara Bailey, university minister. A few months ago she stepped into the footprints of Olson and the others who since led NWU’s campus ministry. She herself is one of those who—chronologically speaking—is far removed from the 1960s.

“Providing more opportunities for service is important. These are the ways that students’ eyes are opened, not just to the world but to their own passions,” she said, not realizing she was echoing Horn’s memories of her predecessor. Under Bailey’s guidance and in close coordination with other campus programs, University Ministries continues to provide channels for students to take action—collecting grocery donations, spending time with at-risk teens, and more formally addressing local needs through semester-long internships sponsored by the Nebraska Conference of the United Methodist Church.

The United Methodist Church as a denomination has a long history of concern for social justice, dating back to the 18th century vision of John Wesley himself, and living today in the regularly-updated Social Principles. The Social Principles are not statements of church law but are a prayerful and thoughtful effort on the part of the General Conference to speak to human issues in the contemporary world. These can be found on the denomination’s web site at www.umc.org. In summing up a call to support 21st century strategies to alleviate poverty, the section on poverty in the Social Principles concludes: Poverty most often has systemic causes, and therefore we do not hold poor people morally responsible for their economic state.

Understanding the System

Stigma and suspicion can accompany society’s response to the poor. Several NWU professors and alumni wrestle daily with analyzing systemic causes of poverty, explaining to students and to the public that individual choice can have little or nothing to do with the life situations that confront people.

“We value individualism. We tend to view personal circumstances as stemming from individual choices,” said Professor of Sociology David Iaquinta. “But when the labor market has at its base a layer of jobs that is needed by society, but the jobs pay less than a living wage, poverty becomes a part of the system.”

“The public tends to assume that a low-income person may be taking the wrong attitude,” said Kate Bolz (’01), Lincoln, “and this may affect their keeping a job; or they assume the person is not participating in the work force at all. But one out of four families in Nebraska is low-income in spite of their work. Nebraska is unique in the number of people who are working. Their low-paying jobs are the only jobs available in their community and with their level of education.”

Bolz is Research and Policy Coordinator for the Low Income Economic Opportunity Program, at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest. She serves on the President’s Board of Advisors for Nebraska Wesleyan and this semester she is an adjunct instructor as well.

“When I think of the social fabric of our nation, I immediately find myself asking whether our systems are working together to address or avoid poverty,” Bolz said. She holds a master in social work degree and is teaching a social work course at NWU covering those policies and systems.

In classes taught by Associate Professor of Social Work Jeff Mohr, NWU students learn that part of a social worker’s responsibility is to help people understand where they stand in this economic system, apart from their personal work ethic. As director of NWU’s social work program and a social worker himself, Mohr has known clients who worked incredibly hard, he said, putting in long hours for low wages in dangerous conditions. When he asked them why they thought they were poor, they often said, “I guess I’m just not working hard enough.”

Bolz and her organization analyzed what it takes for families to meet their own needs economically in Nebraska’s varied rural and urban communities. The resulting publication, Nebraska Appleseed’s Top Jobs for Families 2010, is an outline of what kind of jobs can support a family by size and by location. For example, it reports that a single mother of one preschooler living in Omaha must earn at least $12.13 per hour to meet basic needs without public or private assistance. The report (available at neappleseed.org) cites specific types of jobs, accessible with no more than an associate’s degree, which have the potential to result in economic sufficiency. It is literally a catalog of career paths that individuals could consider for upward mobility before selecting an education or training program based on a television commercial or traditional roles within the work force. The purpose is to help Nebraskans take charge of their long-term economic security, whether they are young people or mid-life adults seeking to improve their situations.

Putting food on the table—consistently—is what everyone wants for Nebraskans and the world at large.

A Paycheck or Two Away

“During the part about nutritious food choices, I heard one woman say, ‘When I can afford it, I love to buy that kind of bread.’ This triggered me to think how different my life really was. I have never had to worry about the price of whole wheat, multigrain bread,” reported NWU senior Kyle Regelean.

Regelean’s discovery about food, and about himself, came through a real-life project in his gender communication course. A communication major, Regelean was among NWU students who organized and presented a series of workshops for residents at Fresh Start in Lincoln, a transitional home for women who had been homeless. His instructor, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies Rachel Droogsma, had been attracted to her new post at NWU in part for the scope of service-learning already under way. Through the project, students learned how fragile the line between having or not having can be, noted Droogsma.

Click to see full illustration. In recent years especially, more Americans find themselves a few yards from circumstances they never expected to see. And when something goes wrong, food quickly becomes the focus within our social fabric.

“We’ve all heard the old adage, ‘Everyone’s a paycheck or two away from poverty.’ We still tend to think that it’s not going to be us. But we’re learning it is us,” says Scott Young (‘01). A Lincoln radio personality who became increasingly involved in community service—and earned a bachelor’s degree as a working adult—Young sees that reality daily in his work as director of the Food Bank of Lincoln.

“We’ve had people who really struggle to ask for food. They never thought it could happen to them,” he said.

The newer term “food insecurity” helps our society recognize the zone between food stability and hunger. According to a USDA report issued in November 2010, about 6.8 million households in the U.S. had ongoing financial problems that forced them to miss meals regularly during 2009. As many as 17.4 million households reported they lacked enough money to feed themselves at some point that year. Although the level was somewhat steady during 2008 and 2009, the number was triple of that reported in 2006 before the economy changed.

The findings came from a survey of 46,000 households about hunger-related issues, including whether they had been able to pay for balanced meals, or were skipping meals, or using groceries more rapidly than they could afford.

In August 2010, the number of Americans getting food stamps hit a record of 42.2 million.

As Scott Young observed, community problems such as crime, domestic violence, and illegal drug activity all become larger in the face of food insecurities. “You’ll find hunger’s fingerprints on every issue.”

Helping around the edges of the enormous danger to our social fabric, many members of the NWU faculty and staff devote personal time and dollars to food issues. For students, helping local agencies respond to food insecurity has been a primary way to become involved in “the human community” as well.

On Fridays, NWU students help hand out backpacks stuffed with food at Clinton Elementary School, located between campus and the downtown area. They are supporting a program of the Food Bank of Lincoln that was begun after teachers and others realized weekend meals at home were lacking for many of the children who qualified for subsidized meals at school. The Food Bank of Lincoln reports that 2,513 backpacks are sent home each week with children in Lincoln and 16 rural communities in southeast Nebraska.

February 2011 brought the third annual “Empty Bowls” event at NWU, which supports the BackPacks program. Handmade clay bowls made by NWU students, community members, high school and elementary students are filled with soup and sold for $15 at the fundraising event. Participants keep their bowls as a reminder there are always empty bowls in the world.

Paralleling the tradition of Empty Bowls has been the annual collection of Thanksgiving foods for families at nearby Huntington Elementary School. Since 1989, NWU students, faculty and staff have contributed food and cash, with the 2010 drive resulting in 92 food baskets.

Such ongoing reminders of food’s role in the social fabric play a part in shaping the NWU ethos. And just as Kyle Regelean had a wake-up moment last semester, Kate Bolz had one more than a decade ago. Visiting the Rosebud Reservation with the Global Service Learning group, Bolz saw a little girl scurry back to the line for a second full lunch. A teacher explained that the girl wasn’t sure if she would get supper at home.

“That really stuck with me,” Bolz said. “What a coping mechanism to need to adopt, at such a young age!”

It stuck with her through graduation, a master’s degree, and into full-time advocacy work.

Images of children stuck with Marilyn Horn also. Her college volunteer experiences led her to the Peace Corps, fluency in Spanish, and a career in high school teaching—but always with an eye toward those in need. Today she helps direct an agency for street children in Mexico and hosts fund raisers for it in her Connecticut neighborhood. And there are thousands more NWU alumni who act on their passions in similar ways.

In the U.S. or abroad, 1960s or today, it keeps coming down to food, housing, stability, and opportunity—the threads of our social fabric.

“The truth is, we are all vulnerable,” concluded Bolz. “As we move forward, we need to weave the needs of the most vulnerable into our nation’s social fabric.”